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Interview. Kianoush Ramezani lost friends and colleagues in the attack on the French tabloid one year ago. "That day something broke inside me.” Now he campaigns for freedom of expression.

Exiled Iranian cartoonist still mourns ‘Charlie’ friends

Kianoush Ramezani, born in 1973, is an Iranian designer and cartoonist. In 2009, he left his country on the authorities’ blacklist and found political asylum in France. In 2012, his satirical drawings published in various international publications won him the International Press Cartooning Prize, presented by Kofi Annan.

Today he lives in Paris and is the president of United Sketches, an organization fighting to defend the freedom of expression of illustrators and cartoonists from around the world. We meet him in his “headquarters,” a cafe along the Seine, a short walk from the Cité internationale des Arts where Ramezani found refuge in the early months of his exile. The massacre at the Bataclan is still an open wound, and Thursday marked the anniversary of another massacre, at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.

“That day something broke inside me,” Ramezani says. “It was a tremendous shock. I fled Iran dreaming of being safe at last. Before the attack on Charlie Hebdo I felt protected: I deceived myself. I realized suddenly that there was no safety. I was a target, too. I lost friends in the massacre; with Tignous in particular I had a special relationship. It was as if they had killed members of my family. For this anger combined with a feeling of revenge mounted inside me. I was confused, angry. It was the worst day of my life. I started drawing. It was the only way available to me for revenge. I lived days of super-activity, total creative engagement. I contacted my colleagues, many designers around the world. Many were terrified. I tried to say this was the time to react, to engage in a kind of collective therapy. It was not easy when you’re suffering. To draw is really complicated.”

You had been threatened when you were in Iran. Has anything changed in the way you perceive the massacre that took place against the staff of Charlie Hebdo?

A few months before the massacre I had met the designers of Charlie Hebdo. Tignous, Charb, Luz. I had warned they ran serious risks. They had answered: “But we’re here in France, not Iran!” When I heard what had happened I felt offended and wounded twice. I had fled to leave behind the death threats and felt at ease thousands of kilometers away. I began to feel better after taking part in the march on Jan. 11. I felt protected by the people. It was fundamental. I felt support, warmth. … The people protected me because no government can do it for them.

Was the idea of creating United Sketches born then? Can you tell us how and why you thought of setting up a network to coordinate international designers and cartoonists?

In the weeks following the attack on Charlie, with the crucial support of the Memorial of Caen [the war memorial in Normandy], I decided to create an organization that supports freedom of expression on a global scale. Until 2010 I was a member of Cartoonists for Peace and in this organization had created many friendships. Then I realized that the incentive that drives my work was something else. Peace is a very nice and noble ideal, but the most pressing issue is to defend freedom everywhere, especially that of expression. This is the commitment to which I have dedicated my life. Criticizing power is our responsibility. I then thought of an organization that defended and supported designers in exile. But once again the definition soon seemed too restrictive. Why only those in exile? United Sketches has two objectives: to protect the freedom of expression, ensuring that everyone can work and express themselves by all means available. The risk is always there that the cartoonists, feeling threatened, will begin to censor themselves. For fear of losing their jobs, of getting fired or worse. Self-censorship is insidious. For this, the second and crucial objective is to give visibility to the designers: It protects those who design and their work.

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You were born and raised in an Islamic society and country. Did you ever drawn cartoons of Mohammed? What did you think of the choice ​​by your colleagues at Charlie Hebdo?

I was born in Iran, and for that I think I know the social and symbolic codes of Islamic societies. For us, Mohammed is an intimate, familiar figure. Offending Mohammed is a bit like picking on a great-grandfather. With a family member. It makes little sense. I believe the role of a cartoonist is primarily to criticize power, and to do that there are better methods. If you’re brave you have to blame the Islamists, the Salafists. The designer is not a mere illustrator but an activist. I believe that, through design, you should try to get the message. They have to ask questions, even awkward ones. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of a humor so direct, literal. It is right that it exists. It is part of the landscape and it is legitimate, but I prefer more subtle irony, able to allude to and then leave the reader free to interpret, to get an idea. This basically the best trade in the world: both serious and funny.

What is the situation now in Iran? Do you who supported the Green Movement see prospects for change?

There are potential changes on the horizon. The geopolitical situation of the last few months has helped to strengthen the regime. There are no events or organized protest movements. There is a generalized retreat in private. The life of Iranians was described by Marjane Satrapi perfectly. Her film Persepolis documented perfectly the split between public and private that is the key feature of Iran today. Outwardly all seem to respect the rules imposed by the authorities and by the ayatollahs. Then in the home you live another life. People download Hollywood movies, drink and merrily violate religious precepts.

What do you think of the success of the National Front? Are you afraid?

No, I’m not afraid. Luckily I live in Paris. The city — and the vote has shown — doesn’t think like the rest of France. Since I have been here I have never felt personally any forms of racism and intolerance. Perhaps in Paris, especially in certain areas, you live in a bit of a bubble. But I think that what happened to the regionals was quite predictable. The National Front has been able to exploit fear. It has effective strategies. The problem is that other political forces demonize the FN without analyzing its growth and the underlying reasons that led to the success of the extreme right. I do not think that the National Front has many chances to win the Elysee in 2017, but everything will depend on the other parties. Perhaps they will agree to block its rise. If the socialists and Sarkozy’s right continue to make mistakes and to advance certain policies, they will pave the way for Le Pen.

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